Thursday, March 27, 2008

"August: Osage County," or, This Madhouse is My Home

The ensemble shares a disastrous dinner. Photo from

A week ago at this time, I had just seen a performance of August: Osage County on Broadway. I'd anticipated August since August, and was not disappointed--indeed, I'm inspired.

First, it's refreshing to see a play with a 13-actor ensemble cast, dominated by female characters. There are 7 female and 6 male actors, and two of the men don't have much stage time. Special commendations to Deanna Dunagan as matriarch Violet Weston and Amy Morton as eldest daughter Barbara. Dunagan, skinny and tightly wound, popping pills and delivering lacerating insults, looks as though the sheer force of her bitterness has shriveled her up. Or maybe it's her character's oral cancer. (After seeing August, I laughed at the NYC bus ads urging mouth-cancer prevention. Wouldn't it be great if they used a photo of Dunagan in full harridan mode, and the slogan "Don't Be Like Violet Weston...Get Checked for Mouth Cancer Today"?) And everything about Morton's performance is perfectly calibrated, down to the way her Okie accent flickers in and out.

The strongest of the three daughters, Barbara makes a worthy antagonist for Violet. The other siblings are downtrodden middle daughter Ivy (Sally Murphy, playing against her ingenue looks) and amusingly self-absorbed youngest daughter Karen (Mariann Mayberry). Barbara is the only one with a child of her own: 14-year-old Jean (Madeleine Martin), who tries to act like an adult, but her nasal childlike voice betrays her. Aunt Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), vulgar and overbearing, is the picture of the barely-tolerated relative. And Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), the young Cheyenne Indian housekeeper, empathetically observes everything from high in the attic.

Next to these formidable women, the men--all of whom are weak and flawed, and lacking the females' gumption--don't stand much of a chance. Mattie Fae's husband Charlie (Francis Guinan) and son Little Charles (Ian Barford) chafe under her belittling attitude. The genial Charlie is one of the more likable characters, however, especially when he stands up to his wife. Barbara's husband Bill (Jeff Perry) and Karen's fiancé Steve (Brian Kerwin) are in the midst of midlife crises. Beverly Weston (Michael McGuire), the patriarch whose disappearance sets the plot in motion, is a dissipated Southern-gentleman poet. Last, there is the sheriff (Troy West) who functions as something akin to the messenger in a Greek tragedy.

Not only does the cast size seem like something from a bygone era (in a good way!), the structure and staging are also old-fashioned. Three acts, with relatively few scenes per act--this is not one of those cinema-influenced plays that switches to a new location every three pages. In fact, when scenes start to change more frequently during the third act, the play's rhythm feels a little erratic. And everything takes place on a three-level set full of props and furniture. Tracy Letts spends several paragraphs describing the set at the beginning of the published script--I thought playwrights had stopped doing that!

It's funny that, for a young playwright like me, the old-fashioned dramatic construction of August: Osage County can seem revelatory. But no playwriting book, no writing teacher, no artistic director, these days, is going to teach you how to write a three-act kitchen-sink I find it inspiring that Tracy Letts figured out how to write one on his own, probably from studying the great playwrights of the past. And yes, August: Osage County is a melodrama--but it's extraordinarily effective. How nice to laugh and gasp along with the rest of the audience--and not just once or twice, but throughout!

But don't get me wrong: even though August: Osage County has been compared to Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, that doesn't give you a proper idea of its tone. Neither O'Neill nor Williams are funny writers--the former is grandiose and self-serious, the latter an earnest poet. The tone, if not the subject matter, of August: Osage County instead is more like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: mordantly funny but deeply harrowing. At the end of Act One, Barbara says to Jean, "Thank God we can't tell the future, or we'd never get out of bed. Listen to me: die after me, all right? I don't care what else you do, where you go, how you screw up your life, just...survive. Outlive me, please." A bleak sentiment, though Morton's delivery of the line makes you chuckle...and the characters still have two acts to go, two acts further to fall.

Act Two is the centerpiece, the high point...just terrific writing. It's all one scene, taking up 40 pages in the published script, and ending with 11 of the 13 actors onstage eating dinner (see what I mean about old-fashioned construction?). It begins with Violet popping pills, so she's like a ticking time bomb, waiting for them to take effect. And boy howdy (as my Okie friends would say), they do. By the end of the act, Violet is attacking each of her family members where it hurts the most--my God, I love "disastrous dinner party" scenes, and this one is an instant classic.

The third act begins more calmly, with the three sisters chatting--another lovely choice, since they have not had a scene to themselves before this. I bet this selection will become popular in acting classes, which always need great female-only scenes.

Everybody is going to take something different from August: Osage County, and for me, it was the commentary on women and aging. The three sisters are all in their 40s and feeling the effects of the end of youth. The men, in subtle and overt ways, suggest that they'd rather be with younger women. Violet encourages Ivy to make more of her looks, while constantly telling her that women get less sexy as they age. The play seems to ask "If society values women only when they're young and beautiful, what options do older women have?" Perhaps this helps explain the Weston women's frustration and dysfunction.

So, to answer my own question from last August: yes, this play does say something, and Letts' characters are more than the sum of their secrets and faults. Though not clever in a smart-aleck way, the play is subtly crafty--I realized the brilliance of the T.S. Eliot references as I left the theater. If you've seen the play and are hungry to read discussion on it, I recommend the New York Times' "Reading Room" blog, which did a series of posts on this "modern classic," with the input of Frank Rich and Marsha Norman, among others. A big new American family drama, intelligently discussed by so many eager people--why did we think that this was a thing of the past? And how can we make it happen more often?

Monday, March 24, 2008

The City Play

The City Play. That's what I would title my next work of drama, if I wanted to make sure it got noticed by American theaters: it combines two fads in play titles that have caught my attention lately, and started to annoy me.

First, the trend of plays whose titles end in "city." I just saw Adam Bock's The Drunken City at Playwrights Horizons, which got me thinking about this. In addition to Bock's play, Shining City by Conor McPherson, Dead City by Sheila Callaghan, and Dying City by Christopher Shinn have all recently been seen in New York. Oh, and a play called Liberty City just opened as well. It's getting pretty hard to tell them all apart! Perhaps this trend dates back to the TV shows Sex and the City and Tales of the City--and I'll admit that, as a wee lass, I always confused those titles as well.

The other, more irritating trend, is to label plays with the word "Play" in the title. Edward Albee (The Play about the Baby), Suzan-Lori Parks (The America Play), and Jordan Harrison (The Museum Play) have all done this, but the major culprit is Sarah Ruhl. I'll give her a pass for Passion Play because, after all, its subject is the history of passion plays, the impact of theater on life, etc. But otherwise, putting "Play" in the title just seems cutesy or tricksy. Couldn't Melancholy Play have been called something like The Melancholics, for instance? Would we still be talking about Death of a Salesman if it had been called The Salesman Play? Unless a play is explicitly about the act of making theater, what is the point of sticking "Play" in the title?

Worst of all, these titles sound like working titles, not names for completed works of art. I mean, here on my blog, or when talking to my friends, I'll refer to "my play that takes place in 1934," but I sure as hell am not actually going to title it that; its name is The Rose of Youth. Ruhl's latest, which will premiere at Berkeley Rep next season, is officially titled The Vibrator Play. This sounds like what you put at the top of your first draft when you have a vague idea of writing a play about the history of the vibrator but not a sense of the finished work. But by the time you're done, you should have progressed beyond this--finding a title that makes a resonant thematic statement, instead of merely acting as a label.

What's strange about this is that Sarah Ruhl was originally a poet, and aside from her titles, her plays are filled with lyrical images and metaphors. Why, then, does she title her plays so prosaically?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

La bizarrerie de la jeune fille Francophile

I've decided it's my new goal in life to read only books that make me want to yell "Score!" when I find them in a bookstore, and the most recent book to make me do that was a sale copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon, at the airport Powell's. I'm about two-thirds of the way through it, but I've already decided that the beginning of chapter 9 is my new favorite quote. Since I'm a French major, it absolutely tickles me:
I admit I have an ugly fondness for generalizations, so perhaps I may be forgiven when I declare that there is always something weird about a girl who majors in French. She has entered into her course of study, first of all, knowing full well that it can only lead to her becoming a French teacher, a very grim affair, the least of whose evils is poor pay, and the prospect of which should have been sufficient to send her straight into business or public relations. She has been betrayed into the study of French, heedless of the terrible consequences, by her enchantment with this language, which has ruined more young American women than any other foreign tongue.

Second, if her studies were confined simply to grammar and vocabulary, then perhaps the French major would develop no differently from those who study Spanish or German, but the unlucky girl who pursues her studies past the second year comes inevitably and headlong into contact with French Literature, potentially one of the most destructive forces known to mankind; and she begins to relish such previously unglamorous elements of her vocabulary as langueur and funeste, and, speaking English, inverts her adjectives, to let one know that she sometimes even thinks in French. The writers she comes to appreciate--Breton, Baudelaire, Sartre, de Sade, Cocteau--have an alienating effect, especially on her attitude toward love, and her manner of expressing her emotions becomes difficult and theatrical; while those French writers whose influence might be healthy, such as Stendhal or Flaubert, she dislikes and takes to reading in translation, where their effect on her thought and speech is negligible; or she willfully misreads Madame Bovary and La Chartreuse, making dark romances of them. I gathered that Phlox, in particular, considered herself "linked by destiny" (liée par le destin) both to Nadja and to O. That is how a female French major thinks.
Hilarious. I love the image of the French language "ruining" American girls, as if the book had been written in the 1800s and not in 1988. And while nothing irritates me more than women who see Emma Bovary as a romantic heroine instead of a deluded fool, there's always Flaubert's Salammbô if you want sex, violence, luxury, and a naked chick with a snake coiled around her. I love No Exit, Baudelaire, Verlaine...and am proud to share a birthday with Jean Cocteau. I delight in saying dark and mysterious-sounding words like cartouche d'encre--so much more evocative than the English "ink cartridge." Bravo Mr. Chabon for this dissection of the female French major! We're not as common in universities as we used to be, but we certainly are a breed apart.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Amazing Adventures in Escapism

Spent today riding to the coast and reading The New Yorker's "Style Issue" (which is off the newsstands now, but oh well, I always seem to be a week or so behind). One of the articles finds Michael Chabon analyzing superhero costumes, which was especially interesting for me because I just finished--and loved--his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The New Yorker article even made me appreciate Chabon's achievement more. At one point, he writes about the various theories why Superman appeared at the end of the 1930s:
In the theories of origin put forward by fans, critics, and other origin-obsessives, the idea of Superman has been accounted the offspring or recapitulation, in no particular order, of Friedrich Nietzsche; of Philip Wylie (in his novel “Gladiator”); of the strengths, frailties, and neuroses of his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, of Cleveland, Ohio; of the aching wishfulness of the Great Depression; of the (Jewish) immigrant experience; of the mastermind stratagems of popular texts in their sinister quest for reader domination; of repressed Oedipal fantasies and homoerotic wishes; of fascism; of capitalism; of the production modes of mass culture (and not in a good way); of celebrated strongmen and proponents of physical culture like Eugen Sandow; and of a host of literary not-quite-Superman precursors, chief among them Doc Savage.
Now, the "amazing" thing about Kavalier & Clay is that it puts forth evidence for about two-thirds of these theories, while describing how its young protagonists create superhero "The Escapist." Joe Kavalier, the artist, has just escaped Nazi-occupied Prague (the Nazis, of course, were inspired by Nietzsche) and wishes to create a character who can smash evildoers in a way that he himself is powerless to do. Sammy Clay, the writer, is a devoted reader of pulp fiction, a keen believer in American capitalism, and a repressed homosexual whose father works as a strongman. Yet it never feels like Chabon is laboring to prove, or disprove, these theories--but rather to dramatize this complicated stew of influences on the development of superhero comics, and make it interesting to people who haven't read comic books for their whole life.

Despite this, I suppose that both Joe and Sammy both have stereotypical, schematic elements to their characters--Joe the quiet, brooding Czech immigrant, Sammy the short, wise-guy Brooklyn kid. But they eventually gain depth as well. It is just heartbreaking to see Joe draw comic-book stories where the Escapist vanquishes thinly disguised Nazis, while in the real world he despairs that he can do nothing more to help the Jews of Europe. So, too, to see the compromises that Sammy must make because of his sexuality.

Kavalier & Clay uses superhero comics to get at a lot of themes--striving, success, entertainment, freedom, America--and one of the cleverest things Chabon does is to name Kavalier and Clay's trademark superhero "The Escapist." He is a Harry Houdini-inspired escape artist whose mission is to "free all who are bound by the Iron Chain, using his Golden Key!" First, the theme of escape resonates with both Joe and Sammy, two somewhat frustrated young men who want to escape to a world of limitless possibility. Second, "escapist" is like "escapism"--the most frequent charge leveled against superhero comics, that they are mindless entertainment with no redeeming value. But Chabon proves that they are a deadly serious matter, especially for a certain kind of young person. As he writes in the New Yorker article: "It was not about escape [...] It was about transformation."

Indeed, when I bought Kavalier & Clay, my mother dismissed it with a "Why'd you want to read about comic books?" but truth be told, I learned a lot from it, not just about the early years of the superhero comics industry, but from Chabon's detailed early-1940s setting (coincidentally, he said he picked up many of his flourishes from old New Yorker magazines). Besides, I used to be a devoted reader of fantasy books, and I'm not averse to a dose of whiz-bam-pow sci-fi on occasion. (I once went on a date with a guy who seemed amused to learn that I enjoyed the first two Spider-Man movies. I think he had pegged me as too "intellectual" for that. Pshaw!)

My copy of Kavalier & Clay is back in Poughkeepsie, otherwise I'd quote some examples of Chabon's gorgeous prose, which--like everything about his book--is expansive and intricate and a fresh perspective. Two metaphors in particular stick out: one where he compares the Manhattan skyline to a bridge--the way that there are high-rises in midtown and the Financial District, and a dip between them at Greenwich Village, like a swooping suspension bridge. And another where he compares the bridges of New York City to various other things: I especially remember his description of the Queensboro Bridge, "two tsarinas dancing, holding hands."

But what I love most about Chabon is his huge imagination--unafraid of kitsch and unafraid of grandeur. Sammy Clay has his first kiss atop the empty Empire State Building at two AM, with a handsome radio actor, during a thunderstorm--and Chabon makes you believe it. Or rather: even if you suspect it's too good to be true, the atmosphere, the slow-burn sexual tension, the sheer audacity of it is so compelling that you want to believe it. You want to shout, "Whoever said that books had to be about dull everyday people doing dull everyday things? Dammit, what are novels for, if not to make out-of-the-ordinary events feel vivid to the reader?" Back when I subscribed to McSweeney's, the first issue I received was the Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, guest-edited by Michael Chabon, prefaced by his manifesto attacking "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." If that short-story collection was a minor skirmish, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a major salvo in the quest to meld "literary" and "popular" genres. Chabon is a Maximalist, an Optimist, and probably a Great American Novelist. Hey, that sounds like the description of a new superhero...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Sondheim Week: Favorite Lyrics

In his fifty-year career Sondheim has written so many clever or profound lyrics that it's easy to have a dozen favorites. Sometimes his lyrics do not even yield up their brilliance at first glance: nobody ever ranks "Love, I Hear," from ...Forum with Sondheim's greatest ballads, but I once read an article (perhaps this one?) calling my attention to the line "Today I woke too weak to walk." A simple declarative sentence, you think at first. But when you realize the woke/weak/walk alliteration, and the repeated "to-day/too/to," and the implied pun on "weak" and "week"--it becomes mindboggling!

I blogged about some lyrics from "Epiphany" (Sweeney Todd) a few months are additional favorites. I've avoided some of his most clever and intricately rhymed songs like "A Little Priest" or "I'm Still Here" because I can't possibly choose an excerpt--also his philosophy-of-life songs like "Move On" or "Now You Know" because there, too, the effect is cumulative and I can't very well quote the whole song.
It takes trust
It takes just
A bit more
And we're done
We want four
We had none
We've got three
We need one
It takes two
"It Takes Two," Into the Woods. This lyric has a patterning kind of like the "today I woke too weak to walk" lyric discussed above--with its "four/none/three/one/two" finale. Mathematically precise, and perfect.
Ladies in their sensitivities, my lord
Have a fragile sensibility
When a girl's emergent
Probably it's urgent
You defer to her gent-
Ility, my lord
Personal disord-
Er cannot be ignored
Given their genteel proclivities
Meaning no offense, it
Happens they resents it
Ladies in their sensit-
Ivities, my lord!
"Ladies in their Sensitivities," Sweeney Todd. This is the song I am most annoyed they cut from the Sweeney Todd movie--it's got clever lyrics like this one, and it turns into a musically gorgeous Quartet.
I'll get Leontyne Price to sing her
Medley from "Meistersinger"
And Margot Fonteyn to dance "Giselle"
Won't it be perfectly swell?
"Bobby and Jackie and Jack," Merrily We Roll Along. One of my favorite Sondheim trick rhymes. (By the way, how do you think Sondheim feels about how his own name doesn't rhyme easily with anything? Even trick rhymes--what do you get? "Wand-heim?")
De Maupassant's candor
Would cause her dismay
The Brontës are grander
But not very gay
Her taste is much blander,
I'm sorry to say,
But is Hans Christian Ander-
Sen ever risqué?
Which eliminates A!
"Now," A Little Night Music. Sets up the joke perfectly, but at the same time, the rhymes are so intricate that it's impossible to predict the punchline.
As I've often stated
It's intolerable being tolerated.
"Later," A Little Night Music. One of my favorite "angsty" Sondheim lyrics. I liked this one a lot when I was in high school.
He flies off to California
I discuss him with my shrink
That's the story of the way we work
Me and Franklin Shepard, Inc.
"Franklin Shepard, Inc.," Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim does have a reputation as the poet of angst and neurosis. What I love about this lyric is how Charley deftly skewers Franklin while also skewering himself ("I discuss him with my shrink") for putting up with Franklin for this long.
You said you loved me
Or were you just being kind
Or am I losing my mind?
"Losing My Mind," Follies. Makes the seemingly innocuous words "just being kind" sound absolutely devastating.

I'm still puzzling over whether there's a rhyme for "Sondheim" and I think I may have found one--which also sums up his talent in writing lyrics:
The words of Stephen Sondheim
Are pleasing far beyond rhyme.
They zing and sting and linger
Delighting listener and singer.
What's that you say? That "Sondheim" doesn't perfectly rhyme with "beyond rhyme" because according to the rules, you can't insert that extra "r" sound in there--it only works with "beyond-heim" or "beyond-I'm"? Oh well, that just proves why he is the master and the rest of us are left far behind.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sondheim Week: The Man Himself

Note: This write-up is done from memory and all quotes are paraphrased to the best of my ability, as opposed to verbatim.

What a thrill it was to see Frank Rich interviewing Stephen Sondheim onstage at the Schnitz last night! The audience was so warm and appreciative, even humming along to the Sondheim songs that played over the speakers as we filed in. Portland Arts and Lectures has tried for over ten years to bring Sondheim to town, but he refuses to do lectures, only q&a sessions. Finally, they persuaded Frank Rich to persuade Sondheim to agree to an interview, and it turned into a short West Coast tour between these old friends.

The organizers set up a fake "living room" onstage, with armchairs, a lamp, and a table with a big bouquet of flowers. Sondheim seemed in good health and spirits. My parents guessed that he was only about 70 years old and I had to inform them that he will celebrate his 78th birthday this month!

Many of Rich's questions dealt with Sondheim's younger years, when he was writing West Side Story and Gypsy and working with some of the best theater artists of the previous generation. Sondheim began by telling the convoluted tale of how he got to write lyrics for West Side Story: he originally auditioned and was hired as lyricist for another Bernstein-Laurents-Robbins project that then fell through. Months later, he ran into Laurents at a party and learned that the three collaborators were about to start a modern version of Romeo and Juliet. "Who's doing the lyrics?" Sondheim asked, out of sheer curiosity, not because he hoped to get the gig himself. Laurents smacked his forehead and said "Why didn't I think of that? I didn't like your music much, but I like your lyrics." Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who originally wanted to write the lyrics, were in Hollywood and unable to break their studio contract. So Sondheim auditioned once again for Bernstein, who seemed disappointed that he did not have any "poetic" lyrics in his arsenal, but nevertheless, gave him the job. Sondheim didn't want to accept it, because of his desire to write both lyrics and music, but his mentor Oscar Hammerstein told him it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and he'd better take it.

Sondheim said that he had a pleasant working relationship with Bernstein, because they were both fans of crossword puzzles and "cutthroat anagrams," and could thus release their tension by playing anagrams instead of yelling at each other. He called Jerome Robbins, though, "one of the two most difficult men I ever worked with," and told of Robbins' attempt to cut "Little Lamb" from Gypsy without consulting the authors, and how the Dramatists' Guild had to intervene. (Sondheim's other "most difficult" collaborator was Richard Rodgers, but he did not elaborate on that.)

Still, Jerome Robbins was responsible for fixing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by adding "Comedy Tonight." That show originally had had a funny opening number, but director George Abbott cut it because he didn't think it was hummable, and Sondheim replaced it with something called "Love Is In the Air"--"a charming song, but it made the show seem more like A Little Night Music than a baggy-pants farce." The show got terrible reviews in Washington, D.C. (a preteen Frank Rich got an excellent orchestra seat because it was playing to near-empty houses), and, at their wits' end, the collaborators called in Robbins for advice. Sondheim showed him the original funny song that Abbott didn't like, and Robbins said "That's just the kind of thing you need--now write another song that Abbott will approve. And don't put any jokes in it, because I'm going to create the jokes with my staging." Sondheim confessed that he thinks "Comedy Tonight" has "a very boring lyric--it's just a list" but because of the physical gags that Robbins choreographed, it became "one of the most brilliant opening numbers I've ever seen."

Oscar Hammerstein died before Sondheim achieved his greatest success, but had already seen enough to be very proud of his student. Sondheim talked about playing "Maria" for Hammerstein--"and it's not one of my favorite lyrics, but it's a very Hammerstein lyric, in its simplicity"--and seeing tears in his mentor's eyes. The whole audience smiled warmly and said "aww." "If you think that's touching," said Sondheim, "there's something else... When Oscar knew that he was dying, he invited his children and me to dinner... Oh God, I'm going to start crying... and on the piano he had a whole stack of photographs of himself, and asked us all to take one. And I asked him if he'd sign mine, which is a little strange, like asking your dad to autograph something... But he did, and when he handed it back I saw what he'd written... 'To Stevie, my friend and teacher,'" Sondheim finished through his tears.

"That really reminds me of his lyric from The King and I, 'By your pupils you'll be taught,'" Rich remarked.

Sondheim also talked about his encounters with Cole Porter. At 18, he wrote a Cole Porter pastiche song, called "The Canasta-Tico," for a Williams College revue, and was invited to play it at Porter's house in Williamstown. Filled with trepidation, even afraid of tracking mud onto Porter's spotless white carpets, Sondheim played his song. "That's not bad," said Porter, "but you know, I usually try to extend the endings of my songs a bit more... Let's see what we can do." And he showed Sondheim how to make his pastiche even more Cole Porter-ish. "What a generous man," Sondheim said to us.

About ten years later, when Sondheim and Styne were writing Gypsy, Ethel Merman invited them to play their songs for Porter, who had just had his second leg amputated and was feeling very depressed. Sondheim played "Together Wherever We Go," singing the quadruple-rhymed lyrics of the bridge:
Wherever I go, I know he goes
Wherever I go, I know she goes
No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos
And when Sondheim got to the "amigos" line, he heard Porter give a delighted gasp. "He hadn't seen it coming!" crowed Sondheim, still thrilled at the memory nearly fifty years later. "He didn't know there was going to be a fourth rhyme! And when you realize that Cole Porter loved to use foreign words in his own lyrics--it's a real Cole Porter rhyme! To this day--I'm not kidding--it is my proudest moment of lyric writing."

One of the things I liked most about Sondheim's talk was that his lessons for musical-theater writing also apply to non-musical playwriting. The "Comedy Tonight" anecdote illustrates the importance of telling the audience exactly what to expect within the first five or ten minutes of a show. From Robbins, Sondheim also learned that songs must have an action: Robbins was at first disappointed with "Maria" because it's just a guy standing center stage singing for three minutes about how he's in love. And Sondheim's own favorite songs among his oeuvre tend to be complex musical scenes like "Someone in a Tree" ("the way it dealt with time onstage has, I think, never been done before or since"), "Opening Doors" ("my most autobiographical song, and I love how it compresses two years in the characters' lives"), "God, That's Good," and "A Weekend in the Country" ("like a puzzle--it took me a week to figure it out"). These are not necessarily Sondheim's most musically gorgeous songs, or his funniest, or his catchiest, and they're certainly not the kind of songs you can extract and put in a musical revue. But that's why he loves them: for their specificity, for the amount of dramatic action that takes place within them, and for how they musicalize and dramatize character relationships. Sondheim, it seems, has the soul of a dramatist, more than that of a composer. Perhaps that is what makes his work so innovative.

"As for songs qua songs," said Sondheim, "something like 'Finishing the Hat'" is among his favorites, for its in-depth portrait of the creative process and the toll it takes. Still, a song like "Finishing the Hat" is equivalent to a monologue in a straight play, whereas "A Weekend in the Country" is equivalent to an entire scene. And I know that in my own writing, I am much prouder when I perfect a very complex scene with lots of characters, than when I complete a monologue that could easily be lifted from the play and used as an actor's audition piece--so I understand where Sondheim is coming from.

At the beginning of the interview, Rich and Sondheim remarked that the Schnitz, a former movie palace with ornate plasterwork and chandeliers, "would be the perfect place to do Follies," and eventually the conversation turned to that musical. Sondheim revealed some of the composers that he tried to pastiche: "One More Kiss" is Victor Herbert/Rudolf Friml, "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" has a Jerome Kern verse and Burton Lane chorus, "Lucy and Jessie" is Cole Porter, and "Losing My Mind" is a straight take-off on the Gershwins' "The Man I Love." He denied, though, trying to say anything specific about these songwriters through pastiche--he just chose composers that were popular at the time that each female character sang in the Follies, and attempted to recreate their style.

As he has been doing for the last several months, Sondheim praised Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd film for stripping away every song that didn't further the action, and leaving only what was cinematic. Asked which of his other musicals he thinks have the potential to make good movies, he named Company and Into the Woods. Company because it is a "vignette-style" show, like the successful Chicago, and Into the Woods for just the opposite reason--because it is so full of action and plot.

At the end, Rich took some questions from the audience. Though many people wanted Sondheim to name his favorite songwriters of the younger generation, he politely declined, because he doesn't want to go on record as anointing his favorites, and make all the other young songwriters disappointed or jealous. It is nice that he realizes his power in the American musical theater, and wants to use it for good, not for ill.

Someone else asked, "As New Yorkers, could you please give us some insight on what is going on with your governor" --Sondheim burst out laughing-- "and whether you think it would make a good musical." "You know who would have made it a musical, would be the Gershwins," said Sondheim, "a 21st-century Of Thee I Sing."

Next question: Would Sondheim consider writing a show for Elaine Stritch? Sondheim replied that she is one of his favorite performers, but he would write a show "for her" only if he found a story that he wanted to dramatize with a role in it that Stritch should play. He does not write pure "star vehicles."

Another person asked if Sondheim had any anecdotes from his years living next door to Katharine Hepburn. He certainly did! As a younger man, he tended to compose very late at night, and at the time he was writing Company, Katharine Hepburn was in New York rehearsing the musical Coco. In the wee hours of the morning, as he slaved away over "The Ladies Who Lunch"--making a lot of noise because of the primal scream moment, "IIIII'LL drink to that!"--he heard a knock at his door, and there was Katharine Hepburn, in nightgown and babushka, barefoot in the dead of winter, ready to chew Sondheim out for keeping her up all night. (Sondheim tried to do a Hepburn imitation for us, but admitted he is not very good at it.) Sondheim later learned from Michael Bennett, who choreographed both Coco and Company, that Hepburn had been using "that young man next door who keeps me up all night" as an excuse to get out of rehearsal early. "And that's why she was a star," concluded Sondheim.

Rich ended the evening with the perfect audience question: "Can we sing 'Happy Birthday' to you?" And so the entire huge auditorium sang "Happy Birthday, dear Stephen" in honor of his upcoming 78th. It was not a very pretty sound--I think the orchestra section started singing before the balcony section caught on--but the spirit of it was genuine and it made everyone feel warm and happy.

Before that, Sondheim had answered the age-old question about whether he prefers writing music or lyrics. "I love music," said Sondheim. "It's easy. You play a chord, it sounds good--and I love dissonance, so you play a wrong note, it sounds good, too! Lyrics--sometimes the perfect phrase will just come to you, but usually, it's a lot of sweat-work."

But no wrong notes were struck last night--and I will treasure the memory of this evening, and many of the stories Sondheim told us, as much as I treasure so many of his songs.

Further links: An interview between Rich and Sondheim done eight years ago for the New York Times Magazine; my friend Marc actually met the man last night!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sondheim Week: "Opening Doors"

I've decided to make this Sondheim Week on my blog, because I am going to see Frank Rich interview Sondheim tomorrow night and I could not be more excited. (If you're in Portland, tickets are still available--it's at the Schnitz.)

Stephen Sondheim has been my favorite Broadway composer-lyricist since I was in high school. I have tons of opinions about his work, tons of his songs remind me of moments in my own life--and I am also grateful to him for starting Young Playwrights, Inc., whose national contest I won in 2006.

As a young Sondheim-holic, I was especially thrilled to see a revue of his songs called Opening Doors, presented at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, in October 2004. It was my first semester at Vassar and my first weekend trip to New York. I traveled to the city on Saturday, saw The Frogs at Lincoln Center that night, sang "Stormy Weather" at a dessert-piano bar, stayed with my cousin in Brooklyn, and the next day, saw Opening Doors for just $10! The Frogs isn't Sondheim's best work, but that didn't matter, because Opening Doors left me feeling so happy. And like a real New York arts lover, a real sophisticate. Before that weekend, I'd barely seen any Sondheim performed live, and none since I'd become a devotee--just a high-school production of Into the Woods and a few West Side Storys.

Victoria Clark (top), Gregg Edelman and Kate Baldwin in Opening Doors. Photo from

I loved Opening Doors so much that I made copious notes after it was over (why I waited so long to start a blog, I don't know), and I'll spare you some of my freshman-year effusiveness, but I thought it a good basis for my first Sondheim Week post. It included many of his greatest hits (some in fresh interpretations), some more obscure pieces, as well as slide shows accompanied by recordings of Sondheim talking about his life and work.

Opening Doors featured five performers: Kate Baldwin, Victoria Clark, Jan Maxwell, Eric Jordan Young, and Patrick Wetzel (filling in for Gregg Edelman). Baldwin was the youngest, a perky ingenue with a clear mezzo/belt voice. Maxwell received the best mention in the New York Times, but I thought she was the weak link in the cast: her low alto voice did not have much range, and she overacted in her solos, waving her arms around. IMO, Clark was the standout, with her expressive voice that switches easily from chest tones to soprano, and her excellent acting. (I loved her even more in The Light in the Piazza the following spring.) Wetzel's voice was a little thin and nasal, but I had immense respect for his ability to step in as an understudy for an hour and a half of singing, dancing, and acting Sondheim. Young had a rich African-American baritone voice, and was also a talented hoofer.

I fell in love with the show during the third number, a medley of "Move On," "Everybody Says Don't," and "Take Me to the World." I wrote, "It was staged so that the other four performers sang "Move On" and "Everybody Says Don't" to Young, as if they were instructing a child on how to live in the world. Then he faced front and sang "Take Me to the World" solo. At the end, the other themes came back, and Young held the note on "for our own," and the three others held the note on "don't be afraid," and Victoria Clark's gorgeous soprano cut above the rest to sing "Stop worrying where you're going, move on," it was incredible. I got chills and almost cried!"

The show was loosely structured as a passage from innocence to experience, explaining why this medley appeared early in the show. It was followed by Baldwin singing "I Know Things Now" as though she were a neurotic young woman who had just gotten out of a relationship with a slimy guy, i.e., figuratively eaten by a wolf. Other re-interpreted songs included "A Weekend in the Country" sung in swing/jazz rhythm instead of waltz time, and "Barcelona" with the genders reversed and Patrick Wetzel singing in an over-the-top Spanish accent.

The Sondheim interview segments also helped to structure the show. For instance, after he discussed life in New York, the performers sang "Who Wants to Live in New York?" "What More Do I Need?" "Uptown, Downtown," and "Another Hundred People." Act One ended with Sondheim talking about friendship and the performers singing a medley of "Old Friends/What Would We Do Without You/Side By Side."

The first act of the show was energetic and cheerful--the performers wore business-casual outfits and the lighting featured lots of magenta and red. The second act became quieter and more introspective, with blue-purple lighting and the performers in cocktail/evening wear. It featured two love song medleys, one for the women, one for the men. When Maxwell sang "Loving You," Clark sang "Not a Day Goes By," and Baldwin sang "So Many People," it was a perfect matching of song and performer. Less exciting was Young singing "Goodbye for Now" and Wetzel singing "I Wish I Could Forget You." But at the end, the men made eye contact and you suddenly realized that they were singing about each other. I wrote at the time, "A nice way to include the fact that Sondheim is gay without clobbering you over the head with it."

More upbeat moments in Act II included an absolutely rip-roaring rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" by Victoria Clark--literally a showstopper. Clark had to hold her final pose for the longest time as we kept applauding and applauding. And Baldwin and Young did a dynamite dance routine to "That Old Piano Roll." Still, by the end, the show ended with more pretty medleys, emotionally moving harmonies, and grand statements about life: first a "No More/No One Is Alone/Being Alive" medley, then "With So Little to Be Sure Of/Our Time."

Noteworthy quotes from Sondheim (paraphrased, of course) during the interview segments included:
  • On youthful crushes: "I was always the youngest, and the smartest, in my class" (something I can relate to!) "which meant that I always hung out with older kids—they took me under their wing, kind of like a mascot. I remember when I was about fourteen, hanging out with this one senior and his girlfriend…Was that a crush? I don’t know."
  • On friendship: As he gets older, the few lifelong friendships he has are the ones who can "endlessly surprise" him.
  • On love: Sondheim considers himself a romantic, in the sense of believing in big, grand, sweeping, passionate statements, “as I think even a cursory listen to Sweeney Todd would prove.” Still, he knows very few couples who can be happy together for an entire lifetime, and that is why he has never had such a relationship.
  • On actresses: Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, and Lee Remick are his favorites for acting while singing, while Glynis Johns and Elaine Stritch are his favorite “personality singers.” Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom about Ethel Merman was that she couldn’t act, but Sondheim and Styne realized that her comedy skills came from some real anger in her soul, and wrote songs to tap into that anger.
  • On posterity: Sondheim doesn't think much about it, because he'd prefer people to discover and consider his work while he is still alive.
  • On writing and life: Asked what he would tell his “younger self,” Sondheim's advice on writing was to write what you feel, not what you think you should feel. He used the lyric from "Move On," "Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new" to illustrate his point. His advice on life was to go after what you want, but be sure it's really what you want (which is the theme of Cinderella's storyline in Into the Woods, of course!). He introduced the singers' rendition of "With So Little To Be Sure Of" by reciting its first must mean a lot to him.
The New York Times accused Opening Doors of being too upbeat and cheery, and maybe that's true. Songs from shows like Sweeney Todd and Assassins were under-represented, while Merrily We Roll Along and Company, two of Sondheim's most brassy, "Broadway-sounding" scores, were over-represented. And maybe, now that I'm no longer a starry-eyed freshman, I'd find myself agreeing more with the Times. But back then, when I felt so wholeheartedly transported by Opening Doors, the bad reviews made me angry, and made me wonder whether I was wrong, or the newspaper was. To reassure myself, I wrote, "I may not have a good eye yet for judging first-class productions of Sondheim. I may like cheaply witty or overly perky renditions of his work. But at least I’m not buying tickets to Mamma Mia." And "So other people have higher expectations for Sondheim songs than I do. But I’m glad I’m not jaded yet, like these New York theatre critics. I thank God that I could enjoy it as much as I did. Since it was the best ten dollars I ever spent. Really."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

It's a Sign

Gearing up for my world premiere tomorrow. Fortunately, I've been so busy this week with midterms and with simple logistical issues that I haven't had time to engage in any lengthy reflections about "the meaning of a world premiere," and thus am avoiding major bouts of neurosis. And besides--the staging looks beautiful (it is amazing what fifteen people can accomplish in four days) and several moments of the script that I wasn't sure would actually work onstage, work beautifully.

I've had the idea for this play in mind for nearly three years now, and it was all prompted by a photograph of Hallie Flanagan's production of Antony and Cleopatra. Hallie is a very important figure in theatrical history, but even at Vassar she sometimes goes overlooked. One of our theaters on campus is called "The Hallie Flanagan Davis Powerhouse Theater" which sounds so formal that when I was a freshman, I assumed it was named in honor of some wealthy benefactress. Only when I started to research this play did I learn that art--not commerce--won out this time. And that there could not be a better name for a Vassar theater. I am honored that my play will premiere there tomorrow.

And today, on that wonderful grab-bag blog if charlie parker were a gunslinger, the powers that be decided to put up this photo:

It's Hallie Flanagan herself. And check out the comment on the post: "Those wild Vassar girls." Nice to know that some people out in blogland still recognize Hallie's name. And nice to think that we wild Dynamo kids are trying to uphold her legacy.

I take this as a positive sign. I have lots of work still to do tonight, so may not sleep much--but, when I do sleep, I'll sleep contented.